Fairy lights wrapped around trees, casting the forest in soft lighting. Branches and leaves bent and twisted into a dark, spiraling tunnel, while rosebuds curved around blue and golden doors in patches of sunshine.
For a moment, I lived in an Enchanted Forest.
I was visiting Alnwick, fully expecting to fall in love with the castle – but entirely unprepared for the mystical gardens.
Of course, with flower petals strewn across the grass, and vines and blooms braided around trellises and tree trunks, the garden itself was beautiful. But it meant so much more.
Alnwick Garden is a registered charity that encourages learning through the arts, as well as disability awareness, with a fairytale-themed garden.
“A strange wind is blowing through The Alnwick Garden, bringing with it a band of fairy tale characters and an exciting quest. Beauty is in trouble, the Wicked Queen intends to poison her and we need your help to stop her!” – Alnwick Garden Fairy Quest
From Belle’s rose to Humpty Dumpty’s fall, the gardens paid homage to fairytales in a way I haven’t seen since the Grimm Brothers’ home of Marburg, Germany. But beyond the maze of paths, the oddly shaped kissing benches, and even the fairytale costume shed, the gardens mattered because they reflected a unique appreciation for imagination and creativity – an opportunity to explore and create. The experience reminded me of sunny Sundays spent in my childhood room, sketching characters, costumes, plot lines, and maps, of places that couldn’t possibly exist.
There was a unique freedom in it – the freedom to be, to imagine – without worrying about school deadlines, work deadlines, or really anything other than how long I could play in my room until my parents dragged me downstairs for dinner.
This is what Disneyworld aspires to create (apart from a profit): that magic and inspiration to believe in a world more fantastical than our own. It’s idealistic, sure, but it’s the foundation Disney was built upon. But amidst the crowds and cheap knick-knacks, it’s difficult for children and adults alike to lose themselves to the magic. It’s too forced, too plastic. That’s not to say it shouldn’t exist; it provides plenty of joy to plenty of people.
But there was something wholly original – and genuine – in Alnwick. Something special in the naturalism of Alnwick’s historical forests and overflowing gardens.
When Chris (my travel partner) and I had our fill of the gardens, we ventured towards a building reminiscent of the Weasley burrow. There, we found: The Potting Shed. A treehouse cafe.
“Mum, let’s run this way!” A rambunctious boy sprinted across the shaky, wobbly rope bridge.
“Right behind you,” his mother huffed. She turned to us, wiping her frizzy hair out of her eyes. “He thinks I’m quite fast. I keep telling him I’ve run around all the other bridges and he wants to know how I’m doing it. But the truth is I just keep hiding! I’m terrified of that bridge!”
Her son circled the Potting Shed, and hurtled back into view. “Mum! How did you beat me?”
“I’m just fast as lightning. One day, you’ll be as quick as me.”
The boy was hopping from one foot to the next when we left them for the Potting Shed, where we could warm our fingers with tea and hot chocolate. We munched on sandwiches in the earthy café; its ivy and pots swinging from the ceiling gave the impression that an oversized talking rabbit was peeking around the corner, ready for his debut. Perhaps a fawn would pull up a wooden chair next to me, and read his newspaper while sipping a cup of tea.
Unfortunately, no fawn sightings that day. I did, however, meet a Frog Prince.
Finally, we were ready for our tour of the castle.
It was time for some Harry Potter.
I don’t rave about Harry Potter the way I used to. At some point, I began to see it as just another trend – another mechanism to attract Buzzfeed readers. They weren’t the books I loved anymore – they were movies and action figures and theme parks.
My love for the childhood stories of The Boy Who Lived hasn’t faded, but the glamour around the name “Harry Potter” has become tainted by its commercialism.
Visiting Alnwick Castle was the perfect antidote to my cynicism.
The first Harry Potter movie was filmed at Alnwick Castle: the surrounding woods served as the Enchanted Forest; the grounds reserved for Quidditch lessons; stone arched hallways the backdrop of the school; and the nearby hut home to our favorite half-giant, Hagrid.
This was where the story began.
This was where Neville (AKA that guy who became absurdly attractive) was terrified of flying – a fear that felt all too familiar to actor Matthew Lewis. He only admitted to his genuine fear of heights under duress, because he didn’t want to lose his role on the first day of shooting. That terror on his face in the movie? All real.
Here, Ron badmouthed Hermione Granger, completely unaware that she would go on to save his neck on numerous occasions. And, you know, marry him.
That reminder of childhood – of midnight premieres, sorting tests, and failed attempts at butterbeer recipes – was more rewarding than I could have possibly predicted.
This isn’t even to mention my Downton Abbey obsession.
Downton Abbey filmed their season 5 Christmas special at Alnwick Castle, and you can now view exhibitions with photos and leftover costumes in the state rooms.
So if the gardens belong to the Brothers Grimm and the castle grounds belong to Harry Potter, the state rooms belong to Downton Abbey.
Well technically, they belong to Ralph Percy, the 12th Duke of Northumberland, who has inherited a 700-year long family legacy. But for me, they belong to the Crawleys and Aldridges.
Very few, if any, props were required to create the aura of elegance and sophistication reminiscent of England’s aristocracy. The Alnwick Castle state rooms embodied perfection.
Pictures were prohibited inside, but you can check out their website here!
From the library to the salon, each detail was immaculate and gilded in glamour. Marble goddesses protected the fireplace. The rooms poured over with golden candelabras, crystals, velvet cushions, paintings and ancient texts dating back to the 16th century. It was divine and surreal. A world of luxury within the cold stone walls of history. A flat screen TV was mounted in the library, and an errant deck of Cards Against Humanity reminded tourists of the castle’s real, contemporary inhabitants.
But the castle belongs to history and the imaginations of children across the world.
To stories yet to be written –
To characters yet to be created –
That’s where you’ll find the magic of Alnwick.